Just had to write this one down to get it out of my head, it was getting in the way of working on other stories. No idea where it came from or why it wants to be written. I’ve styled it after 1930s - 1940s ‘Spicy Romance’ pulp stories, and it just fits in that format at just about 6K words. There is no graphic sex in this story line. Special thanks to Sbrooks and Crkcppr for editing and beta reading it for me. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance. And thanks to everyone for the encouragement and support
24 December 1938
Ella hitched her dark wool pants up as she slid down the wooded hill toward the two room cabin in the holler, clutching the glass bottle to herself carefully. The pants – and the dark wool shirt as well - were actually her older brother’s. The wool cap covering her bright red hair was her uncle’s. She’d needed dark thick clothes to move through the woods on the chilly December night. He’d said if they burned down Widow Amos’ house, she’d leave the county with her son. One less hated Amos to deal with. The Simms-Amos feud has gone on so long nobody even remembered how it started, although rumor was that it had started over a jilted bride. Or maybe a stolen pig – Uncle Enos said that one was pretty much the same as the other. Maybe it didn’t matter at all. The cold of the Appalachian mountains seemed to breed feuds out of the thin, misty air. Ella had been thrilled to be picked to be the one to do the deed. All the men of the clan would make sure they were highly visible in the only Saloon in the county – the Green Room, run by old Nat Green and his wife Mabel. Nobody would ever suspect a girl of burning the place down. According to Uncle Enos, Widow Amos and her son were off visiting family two counties over for Christmas.
She moved silently closer. Uncle Enos had picked her because she was the best at everything. Best runner, best swimmer, best at climbing. And she was tough, hard. Her Gramma said Ella had a mean streak - that she’d “die in the arms of the Devil.”
She crept closer yet and watched for a long bit. She reflected that it was kind of a pity that the bookish son, Jack, was one of the hated Amos clan. He’d never started any trouble and was always kind of nice, at least to her. He was even cute in a quiet withdrawn manner. Back when she was first in school she’d even played with him – they’d even pretended to be boyfriend and girlfriend in third grade. That’d gotten her ass beaten when her Father heard about it, and she had stayed clear of Jack ever since. She’d noticed that he’d gotten tall and lanky in the last year or so.
Still nothing. In the distance she could hear singing. Carols of course, Christmas Eve.
She set the bottle down, pulled the stopper and tied the oily rag from her belt around the neck, tucking one end inside the bottle with shaking hands. She fumbled a Lucifer out of one pants pocket and a flat dry slate out of the other. She picked up the bottle and edged a little closer. Her uncle had given her clear instructions on how to do this. The bottle had to hit on the front porch, under the roof overhang, that way the fire would catch on the bottom and the top of the house, making it burn faster and more complete.
The Lucifer caught on the first strike.
Ella felt like she was watching someone else light the rag and hurl the bottle to burst perfectly, right at the front door.
She was supposed to run immediately, but for a long moment she just stood rooted as the fire caught, the bright orange flames catching quickly to the roof and then leapt toward the sky. She couldn’t seem to walk away – the warmth of the fire on her face made her close her eyes in pleasure for a while – it was a chilly night after all. The fire leapt higher and higher.
Somewhere in the crackling, she heard something fall. A beam maybe? Still it broke the spell and she turned to walk away.
A loud “Crack’’ sound. Then a second. A third.
Ella turned back around. The door to the cabin burst outward, and a blackened figure stumbled out coughing from a flaming doorway, clutching a book.
Ella gasped. Nobody was supposed to be home. Uncle Enos had sworn they were gone.
The figure looked up at her gasp. Jack’s face was pale in the light, even silhouetted against the fire she could see that. His face was twisted in pain.
His streaming eyes fixed on her as he hacked smoke out of his lungs. For a long moment she stared back at him, then turned and scampered up the hillside as if the Devil himself was following her.
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
From the top of the ridge she looked back at the scene – terrified he would be giving chase. Instead, she saw his dark figure tumbling toward the main road. It was a mile to anywhere that way.
Ella ran as fast as she could, splashing across creeks and heaving painful air until she reached her cousin’s house, where she waded into the pond, stripped off her clothes and sank them deep with a heavy stone that’d already been laid out. She washed the smoke smell off and slipped into her night dress then into the back of the house, running up the stairs and slithering into her cousin’s bed. Twelve year old Mary Sue just mumbled incoherently and rolled over.
Ella couldn’t sleep at all. She might have killed Jack, and she didn’t dare tell Uncle Enos that Jack had seen her. He’d told her not to be seen and he could get mighty mean if you didn’t listen to him.
The next day, the Sheriff was out, but he was only interested in Enos and the other menfolk’s whereabouts. She heard enough to know that Jack was in bad shape. Pneumonia, brought on by the smoke, they said. His mom and he were, at least for now, going to be living a few towns over to where the hospital was.
The sheriff poked around, but there just wasn’t anything to find. Uncle Enos had not been surprised to hear Jack was home, only a bit disappointed to hear that he had apparently lived. Ella made a note to never trust Enos completely again.
And life went on. The excited flare up in stories came and went, as did the year, then the next. The feud was almost silent, except for a few back alley beatings – nobody wanted to draw the attention of the sheriff after a near-homicide. Ella had almost managed to suppress her memories as one, then another summer vacation came and went, and another school year started.
As she walked in, she saw a tall muscular boy standing near the doorway to her classroom, other students obviously avoiding him. He was a full head taller than any of the other boys in the hallway and had muscles like knotted cables standing out on his arms. She looked into his face and stopped cold.
She knew who he was.
His gaze locked on her with a touch of cruel humor twinkling behind his eyes. He smiled, in a twisted and laconic, but completely predatory expression.
“Well, Firebug, I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
The way he stretched the word “Firebug” in his clear deep voice chilled her to the bone, despite the August heat. He stood up straight, looming over her.
Sweet Jesus, he was huge, bigger than most full grown men. A commotion behind her, then her brothers, Matt and John, pushed their way between her and Jack.
He didn’t move until her older brother Matt shoved him. He casually swatted Matt to the ground and cuffed John into the other side of the hall with no effort at all.
He brought his lazy attention back to Ella. “Well, Firebug, I’d love to stay and talk. You ‘n I got unfinished business, after all. But I gotta get to class. See you later.”
After helping Matt and John up, Ella barely made it to her desk before collapsing into it, shaking like a leaf. It was Jack. Or maybe it had been Jack, whatever he was now. He’d seemed relaxed and confident like a tiger in a roomful of sheep. No shy, bookish boy anymore, he seemed half monster and half man. The rest of the day was horrible, she couldn’t concentrate and fled the school an hour early to hide in her room.
It didn’t get better after that. He was constantly present and always seemed to be standing wherever she tried to go. He was also unfailingly, mockingly, polite; his cruelly humorous smile was haunting her dreams in just a few days. He always mentioned their “unfinished business” before leaving, and never called her anything but “Firebug.” She learned that he and some friends had built a small cabin where his old house was. Right on the burned foundation. Nobody seemed to know why he had come back alone, all he’d ever say was that he had “unfinished business.” Ella had a horrible feeling she knew what his “unfinished business” was. It didn’t take long for rumors of that to infect the school.
He never touched her, but seemed to take pleasure in beating every male Simms he came across. Her brothers and cousins were soon trying to avoid him. He was just too big, too strong, and he seemed to relish pain. When three of her uncles tried to “have a word with him” in a dark alley to put a stop to it, he’d simply produced a piece of pipe and put all three in the hospital – and warned them that the next time they tried to jump him, he’d put them in the ground.
Her Uncle Clive had named him. He’d rambled incoherently at the hospital about fighting “the Devil himself.”
Jack Amos had become “Devil.”
When Ella heard that, she’d gone outside and thrown up all over the alley, Gramma’s word ringing in her ears.
Ella knew it was just a matter of time before the Devil would take his due. She wasn’t really afraid of taking a beating; her Father had given her plenty of experience in that before he drank himself to death, but the look in Devil’s eye promised so much more than a mere beating. She tried not to think about it too much, but at night, sometimes her mind would wander into the wrong dark place. Her mom didn’t seem to understand, and she had nowhere to go and no way to leave.
He’d become the center of Ella’s universe.
She didn’t have a social life to speak of – she’d never be considered pretty, much less beautiful, with her frizzled red hair, heavily freckled, slightly wolfish features, and a body that earned her the whispered nickname “titless wonder.” Although that had been spoken only once in her presence and earned the boy more than a few bruises. More disturbingly she knew it was whispered that “Firebug is the Devil’s girl.” That, she knew, was enough to keep boys away from her. Even the most ardent of boys would have avoided deliberately antagonizing Devil Amos. It’d have been nice to have a boyfriend like Janet Turnbull and some of the other girls, but it was never going to happen for Ella. She was sure of that.
All she had was the relentless Devil at her heels, mocking her, knowing there was no escape for her. Every time she saw him, he was watching her. Knowing she was helpless, but enjoying her torment too much to end his horrible game.
Ella’s nightmare lasted a full year and a half before the Japanese saved her.
Four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after the final dismissal, she found herself in the basement of the school retrieving maps for her teacher.
A single bulb dimly lit the cluttered basement. Ella picked though the shelves, looking for the maps of the Pacific, when she heard something shift behind her. A wave of nausea swept over her and her veins seemed to fill with ice water. Her knees barely supported her as she turned around. Devil was seated silently on the table in the middle of the basement. She hadn’t even heard him come in. The heavy door at the top of the stairs was obviously closed. All her efforts to avoid being alone with him had ended up useless. His intense stare seemed to draw her eyes into a connection she couldn’t break.
“Well, Firebug, just you and me.”
Her mouth was too dry to speak. Or scream. Not that anyone would hear anything that happened down here. She felt herself shaking, but couldn’t even break their locked gaze as he slid easily off the table and stood, almost scraping the low ceiling. He’d gotten even taller, and more muscular – she was sure he was the strongest and tallest man she’d ever seen. A part of her mind wondered whether her mother would believe her now, or at least after they found her body. If they found her body.
She knew he could feel her terror.
“Some of us are getting let loose now, so we can enlist. I thought I’d take some time to say goodbye, proper-like.”
He stepped one step closer while she stood rooted to the floor. Then another until he was only a couple feet away, looking down into her eyes with his dark gaze.
“I won’t forget you, I promise to think of you. Every single day.”
He leaned over her paralyzed form. She braced herself. One huge hand gently lifted a stray strand of her hair from her face.
With that, he just wheeled off and walked up the stairs, leaving the door at the top open behind him.
Ella collapsed to the floor, too stunned to even cry.
He was gone the next day.
The last half of the school year was like a different world –most of the older boys had enlisted, like Devil, and the remainder seemed intent to. Schoolwork was interrupted by an unending string of stories of battles in remote Africa or tiny islands in the Pacific. Teachers didn’t even seem to be that particular about tests. In the middle of all of it, she found it disconcerting that Devil Amos seemed to still haunt her, but in a different way. Her fear of Devil had defined her thoughts so much that she found herself thinking of him all the time – wondering where he was and what he was doing. Why he hadn’t hurt or killed her. Honestly, she had expected to be, well, violated. And then murdered. She had been so relieved, but later she had to wonder if she should feel a little insulted. Was she really that ugly? He’d made it clear revenge was coming, but in the end, maybe she just wasn’t worth the effort.
And why had he used her given name instead of Firebug? That damn nickname had stuck – even Uncle Enos, who had more reason than most not to like it, used it all the time. She even thought of herself that way at times.
After she left school, life dragged on. Dating was odd – for whatever reason, men just came up short. Not that she had much luck with any real dating – her lupine face and boyish figure didn’t exactly draw the best men. Besides, what few men who stayed in town during the war were hardly worth any effort – and the boys on leave were only after one thing, which, admittedly, Ella enjoyed as well. She’d ended up with a lot of one-night stands, but no long term relationships. Louis Patch was been her first and she hadn’t thought it was much to write home about, but she found that over time, she got an “itch” that needed scratched in that particular way, even if it wasn’t a guy she really wanted to know or be around. She didn’t go crazy over it like Janet Turnbull, but then she didn’t end up “with child” right out of school like Janet either. It was easy enough to pick up a guy at the Green Room, especially after the mines expanded to meet the wartime need for coal. Plenty of miners were single, and a no-strings girl like Ella could get her itches scratched without too much trouble. Most women were competing for the “keepers,” the marrying kind. Ella knew her reputation was worse than it should have been – she only sought company once every couple of months or so – and only when she had almost no chance of getting pregnant. But with nowhere else to go, she was a regular at the Green Room and stories spread.
She didn’t care about the rumors. She felt like she was stuck in purgatory, waiting for something, but she didn’t know what. There was nothing to wait for.
Time dragged on. Her brothers never came back from the war, John dying on some nameless patch of rotting jungle in the middle of the Pacific. Matt disappeared when his cargo ship sank in the Atlantic.
She had a job as a clerk at the General Store, and she even rented the apartment above it. By the end of the War, the Amos-Simms feud was pretty much over. Hell, when Devil had left there were no more Amoses in the County. But her Uncle Enos had gotten involved with the Unions, and the desperate fight between the miners and the owners with their strike breakers. And he’d drawn Ella in as well. It started with little things – play lookout, or pass gossip from the Green Room. But with Enos, it was always “just a little more.”
Soon enough, mysterious fires broke out in mine facilities and records offices – the company store with its insanely overpriced goods burned down. Twice. The owners got the hint and kept it closed after the second time. That was a big victory for the Union – the mine owners had to pay in cash rather than in the generally worthless Company script. Scab housing burned too. But fires only broke out when there was nobody in the buildings, Firebug made damn sure of that. She was questioned by the sheriff whenever there was a fire, but her job and little apartment at the general store made alibis easy.
Three years after the war, her life turned upside down again.
She’d arrived much later than usual and the Green Room was hopping – packed to the gills with grimy miners. She sought a perch for the evening - one that wasn’t a knee. She wasn’t looking to get her itch scratched. It’d been a couple months, but she wasn’t feeling the need – she’d been unsettled and uneasy for some reason.
She just needed the noise and distraction. She’d already bloodied the nose of a mine guard whose hand had “accidently” come to rest on her butt when she went over to pick up her drink from Mabel. Through the crowd, Ella saw an empty chair at a table toward the back, and pushed for it – most miners would let her have the chair, if only for a shot at having her. But as she broke through the crowd, which seemed to hang back oddly from the table, she felt her knees turn to water.
“Firebug. Wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again.”
He’d somehow become even more imposing. Devil Amos managed to overshadow the world from his seat on the other side of the small table. His powerful form made even the biggest and most powerful of the hard working miners look weak and small. A tumbler of whiskey was dwarfed in one powerful hand. He looked harder, with a few more scars.
All the old fears rushed back in, but Firebug wasn’t a little schoolgirl any longer. She squared her shoulders and stared back, quaking like a leaf inside, but desperately trying not to show it.
“Devil. I ain’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
Her voice was cracked and trembling, and she knew he could hear it, but she had at least responded for the first time.
He smiled humorlessly at her audacity and downed the remainder of his whiskey.
“Been busy. Had to come back, though. Unfinished business, ya know.”
He stood, which caused the mob to move back further, then brushed by her and headed out the door. Despite the press of the crowd, a clear path appeared as if by magic ahead of him. People simply stopped and watched as he walked out.
She stood speechless, staring after him until a woman’s voice behind her spoke.
“Who in God’s name was that?”
Ella turned to find Janey Turnbull, Janet’s little sister gawking at the door.
“That’s the Devil.”
Mabel Green walked up beside them.
“What’d he say?”
Janey whistled, not understanding. “Can I have him?”
Mabel shook her head, grim as a coffin.
“Janey, you stay clear of this. Firebug’s the Devil’s girl, and there’ll be pure hell to pay if anyone interrupts their business.”
Janey persisted, confused, “What business?”